Shelter, pack, and sleep system. Thru-hikers lovingly refer to these as the “Three Heavies” because they account for the majority of an individual’s baseweight. Nowhere else in the gear list is the relationship between ounces and $$$ so depressingly vivid, and the exchange rate is abysmal. Rule of thumb puts the price to drop 1 ounce of weight at $100. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how balancing cost and weight is a unique struggle for each individual. As you’ll see, I took a mixed approach.
What did I use?
I used a square 8.5’x8.5’ cuben fiber tarp from ZPacks with Easton Nano stakes. The tarp was not an off-the-shelf model, with many custom tweaks added at my request. If you want details, contact me directly. This tarp is almost exactly what I used.
How’d it do?
For the most part it performed flawlessly. And when I say “for the most part” I mean that when it wasn’t raining, it was the best shelter out there. The thing is extremely lightweight and ludicrously packable so that when the weather was good, which was the vast majority of the time, I didn’t feel stupid lugging around a heavy tent only to cowboy camp every night. However, because I needed to use it so rarely, I never became fully versed in the nuances of tarp camping. It takes a decent amount of practice and skill to set up a tarp quickly and sturdily, two characteristics that remain mutually exclusive with me. On many occasions I rolled into camp with weather conditions of dubious quality
developing overhead where, if I were carrying a tent, I would have been protected if things turned for the worse in under 5 minutes. Instead I was confronted with a decision between struggling for 15 minutes to get my tarp set up or being lazy and risking getting inconveniently wet at 2am. Laziness always won out and I got away with it way more times than I had any business doing so. Until Washington. I will say that I do not believe there exists a shelter that will keep you completely dry through four days of Washington rain, but being fully enclosed will definitely help. My tarp kept me alive, but with walls completely missing, a shelter can only delay the inevitable when living in a cloud. By the time I reached Stehekin I was miserable after enduring nights of increasing discomfort as my down sleeping bag accumulated moisture.
- Lightweight and packable: You can’t beat a cuben tarp at either of these.
- Spacious: For one person, 8.5’x8.5’ is palatial with plenty of room for you and banishing your nasty socks to the far reaches of the earth while still managing to keep everything dry-ish. This size is actually still great for two people.
- Cuben fiber: Cuben is superior to other shelter fabrics in nearly every way. It is 100% waterproof and will not sag or stretch when dampened or cooled. If you pitch it tight as a drum, it will be tight as a drum in the morning without any nighttime fiddling.
- Multiple configurations: Is there a conveniently
located log on the ground to tie to? Is there a really strong wind? A square tarp can be pitched in countless ways to suit the current conditions. A well-built tarp will outlast any freestanding, 3-season tent in harsh conditions.
- Uses trekking poles: You’re carrying poles already. Why carry a set of dedicated shelter poles too? Tarps and other ultralight shelters setup using trekking poles = weight and space savings.
- Worship: People will think you’re a badass. Because you are.
- Price: Cuben fiber may be made from unicorn hairs, but it’s priced accordingly.
- Learning curve: A tarp like this is the Ferrari of the shelter world, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can drive it well. It takes dedication to learn how to unlock the true potential. It punishes negligence.
- Bug protection: There is none. I carried a separate bug net that I only used a couple of times. Had I needed to, I could have hung it inside my tarp, but a benefit of the drought was that bad bugs were rarely encountered.
Would I recommend it?
Yes, as long as you’re willing to get good at setting it up and can get over the fact that you’re spending big $$$ on a tarp. Cowboy camping is the best and you won’t feel bad about doing it if you carry something this light and small. However, freestanding tents continue to get lighter and cheaper, providing some stellar alternatives to tarping. If these other good options didn’t exist then everyone would use tarps. As it is, only a tiny minority does.
What did I use?
I used an Osprey Atmos 50. I picked mine up at a discount because Osprey had just released the next generation, Atmos AG. Still, price barely factored into my decision of what pack to carry all day, every day. Like shoes, the backpack you choose correlates directly with your well-being on a daily basis. Carrying an uncomfortable pack? You won’t be carrying it for long. You’ll either stop hiking or you’ll ditch it for something comfortable.
How’d it do?
It made it the whole way, so I’d say it did great! Besides a little fading and a subtle yet permanent stink, everything works just as well as it did the day I bought it. Durability of that caliber is absurd, but appreciated though it comes with a weight penalty. At just over 3lbs this is not close to being an “ultralight” pack, but I deemed the features included in that weight to be worth a few ounces. Here are the feature considerations that led me to this pack rather than any other of the dizzying number of choices in the stable:
- Mesh back panel: I sweat a lot, especially where my back meets unventilated fabric during aerobic exercise. Previous packs that I have owned soak up that sweat like champs, but I was constantly bothered by the feeling that I was sweating more than I needed to, forcing me to carry more water to stay hydrated, and that the weight of my sweat stayed on my back instead of evaporating into clouds. Mesh back panels enticed me as the solution to these problems, and I think it paid off. Sure, my back still got sweaty, but less so, and the occasional cooling breeze blows away all the pain.
- 50-liter capacity: Though way smaller than I’d ever backpacked with previously, 50L seemed like the ideal size for this trip. Plenty of other hikers go smaller, and honestly I could have too, but I never had to worry about fitting enough food for the next section. It was stuffed to burst leaving Kearsarge Pass, but that load included 7 days of food and a bear can, taking me all the way to Tuolumne Meadows. If you need more than a 50L bag can carry, then something else in your gear list needs changing, not your bag. If you are considering going smaller than 50L, make sure to have all your other gear figured out first so you know that it will fit with PLENTY more room for food and water.
- Strong frame: The desert is dry. Oregon is dry. There are long dry sections all along the trail, in every state. Water is heavy. Being able to carry lots of water comfortably without flimsy frame pieces buckling into your back will keep you happier and healthier.
- Hip-belt pockets: Handy for everything. I carried my camera in one and collected found trash in the other. You are much more likely to pick up other peoples trash if you have a convenient place to put it. Also, zippered pockets are infinitely more secure than clothes pockets. Nothing, I tell you, feels worse than reaching a trailhead trashcan only to find that your Clif Bar wrapper jumped out of your pocket somewhere to thwart your best LNT efforts.
- Durability: Awesome. It didn’t break.
- Load capacity: The aluminum frame and 50L size combined to make this a load-carrying machine. 5 days food, 9 liters H2O, and stuff pushed the Atmos to the limit, but that’s ~60lbs total! Some would argue that that means it’s overbuilt for thru-hiking. Maybe they’re right.
- Color: Burnt orange. The best.
- Osprey: Great company and supportive of thru-hikers. On the rare occasion that someone’s pack did break, Osprey offered repair or replacement free of charge.
- Mesh back panel: Less sweat and breathable. Some hikers suffered from back chafe. It sounds awful, but I never got it so I wouldn’t know 🙂
- Water repellent: Not waterproof, but I never really got punished for being lazy when it camp to deploying my pack cover in light precipitation. The outside of the top of my pack got soaked plenty of times, but the contents of the pocket one fabric layer below never got wet, cell phone included.
- Weight: The mesh panel, aluminum frame, and other “features” certainly add up to make this one of the heaviest packs that’s worth considering for a thru-hike at 3+lbs. Many ultralight options exist that perform well and remain extremely popular in the community. Not having owned or used any of these I can only speculate that you sacrifice comfort, capacity, and durability to approach the 1-2lb threshold.
- Skinny side pockets: The exterior side pockets are stupid skinny. I genuinely have difficulty imagining why anyone at Osprey would allow this. Forget trying to fit anything but a Smartwater (maybe they’re in cahoots!) bottle in these pockets designed for chopsticks.
Would I recommend it?
Sure. If you can find an older model like mine, it will probably be super cheap now. The updated Atmos AG has a fancy new suspension system that owners seemed to appreciate, but it adds even more weight onto an already heavy pack. As long as you’re not trying to shave ounces off everything to go ultralight, this is a solid pack that will carry everything you need in comfort and style, and includes the support of a great company. Also, check out the Osprey Exos. It has all the same great features, but in a lighter package. I really wanted one, but it’s less adjustable than the Atmos and didn’t fit right when I tried it on. It might fit you.
What did I use?*
I used my Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15 sleeping bag and Therm-a-rest ProLite sleeping pad. Now, it is important to note that I have owned both of these items for roughly a decade and both have seen significant use in a variety of circumstances, from carpeted floor at a sleepover, to the Sierra backcountry, to the Nepal Himalaya. Both pieces are old, but, through proper care, still perform at near peak performance. Both pieces are heavy, but I couldn’t justify dropping big $$$ to replace working gear in the name of 2lbs weight savings. However, if I ever decide to lighten my load, I will certainly start here.
How’d they do?
Let me start by saying that your sleep system is a collaborative effort between a pad and bag to keep you comfortable. Overall warmth depends on both. Sleeping bags have degree ratings and sleeping pads have R-values. Don’t underestimate the value of a warm pad. Conversely, don’t overestimate the accuracy of a bag’s degree rating. They vary wildly from company to company and each individual is different. Are you a warm or cold sleeper? Will you sleep in a tent (warmer) most nights? Filter all available data through an honest evaluation of what you know about yourself. That said, a 20-degree bag is a good place to start for the PCT.
My sleep system performed to my expectations. The sleeping bag, rated to 15 degrees, was overkill most nights even though I usually cowboy camped. This was an easy problem to fix as I could leave it unzipped and use it like a quilt to dump some heat. I survived many below freezing nights in comfort, waking to a bag crusted in a shell of ice, yet perfectly toasty. I had a couple cold nights in Washington when the down got wet, but I survived regardless. In my opinion, it was worth the extra weight to carry this bag in order to virtually guarantee comfortable, restful nights.
My inflatable pad, as expected, was punctured. Amazingly, it only happened once, at mile 700, and was easily repaired with a duct tape patch that lasted the rest of the way. As 10 years of regular use would suggest, I like this pad. Is it the best, lightest, or cheapest? Without a doubt, NO to all three, but it succeeded despite the abuse.
- Warm: I never worried about my bag being
warm enough for the conditions, provided I could keep it dry. Cold temps at 10,000ft in the Sierra? Just brush the ice off. Unseasonable cold snap in Washington? Awe snap, I didn’t freeze. If budget isn’t an issue, then two bags, ~20F and ~40F, from which to pick and choose would be a nice luxury to allow matching conditions with minimum weight depending on the expected conditions for a particular section.
- Comfortable: I sleep on my back, side, and stomach. The Therm-a-rest isn’t super thick, but I never bottomed out or felt the minute details of the rocks below. Sleep cannot be overrated and maximizing the efficiency of your horizontal time is always a priority.
- Cheap: Gear you already own is essentially free. If it will do the job (this is important!), don’t be afraid to sacrifice a few ounces to save a few benjamins. The sleep system I wanted for my hike (and still dream about) could easily run me $600 in this wonderful world of capitalism. Call me un-American for not doing my part to stimulate the economy if you want.
- Durable: One hole in the inflatable pad. That’s it. No other issues.
- Heavy: Even the new Phantom 15 (33oz) and ProLite (16oz) combined weigh a little less than double what an ultralight setup with equivalent performance weights. Who knows how much more my 10-year old stuff dragged me down.
- Bulky: The ProLite was especially difficult to stuff into my 50L pack when I had a full load of food. In the end, I strapped it to the outside of my pack, not the best place for an inflatable pad. I slipped it into a Tyvek USPS envelope for protection and it proved to be an exceptional kickstand for my backpack with no ill effects.
- Wet performance: Down is down. The good comes with the bad and both are exhaustively documented. Wet down offers less insulation than a damp sponge, but it’s worth the risk. Just keep it dry.
- Overbuilt: A 15F bag is too warm for the PCT. I was happy to have it, but I would rather have dropped a pound from my baseweight. If you trust some of your sleep warmth responsibility to clothing layers then it will pay dividends when you face the scale. I never slept in my insulated jacket because I never needed to (except when my bag got wet in WA). That’s extra potential warmth being wasted as a pillow and suggests that my sleeping bag was too warm.
Would I use it again?
It saddens me to realize that all this great info about my sleep system is essentially useless to everyone, considering that I’ve owned it longer than YouTube has existed. I will use the Phantom 15 and ProLite again, but I won’t recommend them to someone starting from scratch, focused on hiking the PCT. That’s okay because I will share the fruits of my research on this subject.
What would I recommend?
Simply, I recommend either a 20F Zpacks sleeping bag or a 30F Palisade quilt from Katabatic Gear. For pads, Therm-a-rest is difficult to beat. Neglecting price, a variation of the NeoAir XLite would be my choice for their ridiculously small weight and packed size. A budget option that I’ve always been attracted to is the Z Lite, also by Therm-a-rest. It’s cumbersome, not remarkably comfortable or warm, but it’s cheap, light, and durable enough to be used as a siesta pad on any surface. They are extremely popular. If cutting weight is your main goal, consider shortening your pad to fit only your torso and hips. Use your pack under your legs and feet.
Take all this advice with a healthy dose of salt and expand your search beyond what I have recommended (again, Outdoor Gear Lab is a fantastic resource). I haven’t used any of my recommendations personally, but I know those who have and my sources are unambiguous in their praise of this stuff. Perhaps one day I’ll get to see what all the hype is about…
*Secret: In addition to my sleeping bag and pad, my sleeping system included a silk liner. I had it lying around (again, probably about a decade old), it’s small and lightweight so I decided to bring it along as an easy thing to ditch if I felt so inclined, which never happened. Instead, I slept in it every night. I liked it and would recommend trying one, or other liner, for a couple of reasons:
- Boost warmth: Not quantifiable, but I’ve heard rumors that using a liner can reduce the comfortable temperature of a sleeping bag by 10F. Something to consider if you want to carry a lighter bag during warmer sections and crank up the heat for the frigid ones.
- Stink: Having an easily washable layer of fabric between your nasty self and your sleeping bag helps everybody. Yes, that’s right, even the polar bears. Help the down in your sleeping bag stay lofty and warm by keeping it clean. It’s much easier to wash a liner with your clothes every town stop than it is to wash a sleeping bag once.
- Pseudo-quilting: Even when it’s sticky hot I was happy to have a light fabric layer to tuck into underneath my fully open, quilt-style sleeping bag. Quilts are drafty, especially if it’s so hot that you’re not even using one, and I found it superior to have a thin sheet rather than rock totally bare skin. Also, if having bugs crawl over you while you’re sleeping ain’t your thing, a liner will help.